But as for the cowardly and unbelieving, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. (Revelation 21:8)
…the unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:43-44)
How can a just God condemn a person to eternal torment in the lake of fire for his evil deeds committed during his short lifetime? Isn't the punishment disproportionate to the crime, and therefore unjust?
That is a good question.
If a person's eternal destiny were only a matter of reward or punishment for the specific deeds done, then one might make a good case for a limit on suffering. However, it is one's character that determines his eternal destiny, not merely the weighing of his good or evil deeds.
To be sure, at the Judgment each person will be judged according to his deeds, for they are the evidence of his character, and one's character is formed by the thoughts and deeds to which he gives himself throughout his lifetime. Once that lifetime has come to an end, his character is set for all of eternity, as the Bible so simply puts it:
He who is unjust, let him be unjust still; he who is filthy, let him be filthy still; he who is righteous, let him be righteous still; he who is holy, let him be holy still. (Revelation 22:11)
“Still” means without changing — on a steady course throughout eternity. For the Bible assumes the immortality of the human soul, and tells of a resurrection for all who have ever lived — some to a second and eternal life, and some to a second and eternal death.1 It is according to how a tree is bent. There is a point after which it cannot be straightened.
There is an example from nature that illustrates this truth in a limited way. It is a well-known fact that once an animal has killed and tasted blood, it can no longer be trusted. Something is forever changed in its character. It will always crave fresh blood.
Certainly people are of a higher nature than animals, and have the capacity to rise above their lower instincts to live in accordance with the moral law in their conscience. Yet when a person repeatedly pushes past the voice of his conscience to satisfy his own desires, in callous disregard of the welfare of others, it distorts his character.2 Eventually he can no longer hear the voice of his conscience, and he becomes set — like concrete — and cannot change. By his deeds he has chosen his eternal destiny, for they have conformed him to the image of Satan himself, whose voice he has preferred, and whose destiny he will share.3
So the choices and judgments we make in our lifetime are tantamount4 to choosing our eternal destiny, sealing our character and disposition eternally. It only takes one lifetime. In fact, that is the purpose of our short lifetime on this earth — to form and test our character in preparation for an eternity of service in the universe for those who pass the test. Contrary to the ambitions of the space program, God is not going to let man reach the stars until sin has run its course and the last judgment has taken place. At that time, Satan and his angels, and all who prefer their company, will be sealed off for eternity in the place the Bible calls the lake of fire, never to deceive and destroy again.
Then there will be a new heavens and a new earth5 that will be populated by those who have been judged worthy of a second and eternal life6 instead of a second and eternal death.7 These are the righteous people of the earth who listened to the voice of their conscience, consistently choosing the good they knew to do, and turning away from the evil.8 Although they often fell short, their upright character was obvious to all. When they died and their souls went into death,9 they were able to pay the wages of their sins10 because their character was such that they took responsibility for their sins, not blaming them on others. The long discipline of death was able to accomplish its work, cleansing them of their guilt.11 When they were resurrected to stand in the Judgment, there was nothing to be held against them, but only mercy and comfort, and a bright future in the new heavens and the new earth under the good rulership of Messiah and His bride.12
Yahshua, the Messiah, described this judgment with profound simplicity:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?”
And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
Then they also will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”
Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:31-46)
There is a common misperception that the “sheep” in this passage are Christians and the “goats” are unbelievers, but in fact, this judgment is based on a person's character, not his religion. In first-century Palestine, almost everyone had sheep and goats and knew quite well their contrasting natures, which is why Yahshua chose these animals to make His point. Furthermore, He was talking about the judgment of the people of the nations,13 not of His own disciples, who were saved by His grace and forgiveness from the destiny their deeds may well have deserved.14
First, Yahshua tells the “sheep” their destiny, praising them for the kindness they showed to Him. They are astonished because they have no memory of ever having done those deeds. He explains that it was the kindness they showed to His brothers, meaning His disciples, which He took personally. Clearly these “sheep” were not also His disciples, for His disciples all know that however they treat one another is how they treat Him, for they together are His Body.15
No, these people showed their true character by caring for His disciples even at great cost to themselves, for Yahshua's disciples were always hated by the established religion, and it was never politically correct to show kindness to them.16 That is why Yahshua had promised that whoever gave even a cup of cold water to a disciple of His would not lose his reward.17
This does not mean that only those who actually showed kindness to Yahshua's disciples would be approved in the Judgment, for countless millions of people over the ages have lived and died without ever having seen one of Yahshua's disciples. But it shows the character of those who will be approved by their Creator, for they recognized and valued His image in their fellow man. For this reason, their lives were characterized by faithfulness in their marriages, honesty and diligence in their occupations, kindness and mercy in their relationships, humility and accountability in the face of their failures, and a willingness to suffer without growing bitter. Such people God will welcome into His eternal kingdom,18 over which Yahshua and His brothers19 (collectively called His bride20) will rule.21
But what about the “goats”? With indignation, they protest, “It's not fair! When did we ever see you in need and fail to help you?” (even after hearing Him explain to the “sheep” how He took personally their care for His disciples). In contrast to the “sheep,” their lives were characterized by callous disregard of the suffering of others, and anxious concern for their own comfort, as in the story of the rich man and Lazarus:
There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side.
The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.”
But Abraham said, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.”
And he said, “Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house — for I have five brothers — so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.”
But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.”
And he said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”
He said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:19-31)
This rich man lived his life as though he would not have to give an account for ignoring the poor man at his gate. His folly became apparent when he found himself in torment in death, while Lazarus was being comforted.
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds… (Psalm 14:1)
Only the fools of the earth set their course for the lake of fire in the short span of their lifetime. They would not attain to any more integrity in all eternity than what they attained during their lifetime in this age, which was their probationary period. The damage they did in the souls of other human beings by their evil deeds would have its cumulative devastating effect for uncountable generations, until the end of time.
Even in death, the rich man thinks only of himself. He wants Lazarus to leave his place of comfort and come to ease his torment. There is no remorse in him, but only complaint. Even his apparent concern for his brothers' welfare is only an accusation against God, as if God were to blame for his brothers' likely fate. After all, nobody warned them of the torment awaiting them for their wickedness! Never mind the fact that they had already tuned out the voice of their conscience and scoffed at the Law and the Prophets.
It is like the absurd product warning labels required these days. A label near the fuel cap on a snowmobile reads, “Never use a lit match or open flame to check the fuel level.” You can imagine the history behind this label. Some senseless boy blew himself up by lighting a match over the open fuel tank, and his parents sued the manufacturer for not warning of the danger of explosion — and won! Now these selfish parents have ten million dollars to console them for their failure to put common sense into their son, their shrewd lawyer has a new Porsche, the snowmobile manufacturer is out of business, and a hundred innocent employees are out of work, unable to provide for their families.
Such is the attitude of those who are on a course for the second death in the lake of fire. Their choices in life shape their character. They blame others for their failures, they use others to satisfy their appetites, they enrich themselves at others' expense, they make themselves comfortable in spite of others' pain, and they are unwilling to suffer in order to keep their word. These kinds of choices block off the only avenue to their heart that could bring them to repentance: the voice of their conscience and sensitivity to the pain they cause in the lives of others. Eventually they become incapable of feeling true remorse and taking responsibility for their sin. Even the discipline of the first death cannot penetrate their defenses.
So in the resurrection, they go to the place prepared for Satan and his angels, for they have made themselves compatible with the evil one, the king of self. In the Judgment they scream, “It's not fair!” But it is not a matter of God's fairness. It is a matter of their own choices which shaped their character. If allowed to inhabit the new heavens and the new earth, they would only continue in the same way, filling it with their own selfishness for all eternity. No, it is only fitting that they would spend eternity with their king — “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”22
Our loving and just Creator has reserved the new heavens and the new earth for those who pass the test of their short lifetime, choosing to suffer in this age to heed the voice of their conscience. Even their failures they take responsibility for in death, weeping over them, therefore in the resurrection their tears will be wiped away by Yahshua and His bride, who will lead them into the eternal kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world.23